Frank Bonanno asks: "Is it my fault somebody stunk up the bathroom?"
Frank Bonanno is one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in Denver, presiding over a commonwealth of food temples (and one speakeasy) that, for the most part, generate positive reviews and comments from professional restaurant critics and amateur key strokers alike. But even the best restaurants make mistakes, and Bonanno's restaurants -- Mizuna, Luca d'Italia, Bones, Osteria Marco, Russell's Smokehouse, Green Russell and Lou's Food Bar -- aren't immune from the occasional slip-ups.
Shit happens. And when you're dining at a restaurant -- any restaurant -- and your experience is legitimately lackluster, you have every right to complain. But when your server approaches your table and asks for your feedback, and you answer that "everything was peachy," when, in fact, you're seething inside because you don't have the wherewithal to speak up, you have no one to blame but yourself.
"If you're unhappy, we want to know about it on the spot," stresses Bonanno. "We're in this business to make people happy, but if you have a criticism, we encourage you to tell us about it while you're at the restaurant -- to give us the opportunity to correct our mistakes." Cooks, he adds, "just want you to love their food. Why else cook?"
And, as a diner, it's also your responsibility to behave appropriately. Propping your naked, stinky feet on a table top is never acceptable, and bitching that you don't appreciate the bathroom's choice of paint color is indicative of someone who is better left at home watching infomercials, Cops or Demi Moore in Striptease.
Bonanno, who's worked in this business for years, has heard it all, including a complaint from a diner who walked into one of his restaurant bathrooms and promptly groused that someone prior had -- GASP! -- pooped. Another diner inexplicably whined that his steak tartare was too rare.
On his personal blog, Bonanno often writes thought-provoking pieces that delve into restaurant industry issues, and in his latest post, which is titled "Is it my fault somebody stunk up the bathroom?" he writes about customer complaints, and the ideal way for us, as diners, to go about expressing our dissatisfaction.
But he goes even further, encouraging people to offset the negative with the positive: "For every complaint committed to writing, the critic should have to write two complimentary letters, expressed just as eloquently, and sent to alternate, deserving businesses. Don't be that guy -- be a good guy. A good human being," he writes in his post. That's some of the best advice I've heard -- from anyone.
Bonanno's entire post, reprinted with his permission, is a must-read for industry folks and diners alike. Read it on the following page.
Part of me wishes no one complained.
A Mizuna patron vented online because her illegally parked car was towed (she didn't use the complimentary valet). A steak tartare was too rare; a soft shell crab too difficult to de-shell; a vichyssoise too cold. At Luca, a client raged against the cloth napkins ill-suited for her gum disposal; at Green Russell, I was confronted by a woman who could not believe her bare feet weren't allowed on the table. One diner at Bones complained because too much of another's bum was exposed at the bar. I need to know that someone made the bathroom smell foul. The bar stools are too close together; the bar stools are too far apart. The patio at the Osteria was too sunny in July.
Now, these aren't the comments that weigh heavily on me because they aren't indicative of lagging professionalism or waning commitment. What they really are is funny to dissect at the end of a long shift. Other complaints are more problematic.
When is it ok to remark on the heat or air? Do we cool down the entire dining room to accommodate the bearded guy in the alpaca sweater, or do we heat it up for the lady in the strapless gown just two tables away? Should a deuce be upset that we can't place them on a four-top Friday night at 7 pm? Is it valid to complain that you had to wait half an hour, when you're including the fifteen minutes you arrived before your reservation? Is it right to ask one group to stop having fun because another thinks they're laughing too loudly? Should a bigger person insist on a larger portion size? What if you don't like the décor in the bathroom?
My own pet peeve in a restaurant is waiting too long for cool water or cocktails -- yet I know any one of my restaurants might be guilty of that oversight on any given night. I strive, though -- we strive -- to be better than that, and I will never know I haven't succeeded unless my clients come to expect excellence. You must insist upon it; you must remind us when we fall short; you should remind us when we excel.
So please complain, because the part of me that wishes no one would is very very small (and a little too idyllic). I want and need to hear if I've made you unhappy, if my team has let you down. I have to ask you, though: consider why you're dissatisfied. Is it something we can and should control? Were we lacking expediency, food quality, professionalism? Then it is your right to tell us and our right to know. So please complain -- but compliment, too. Let us know how we're doing so that we all head home happy at the end of the evening.
Here are some tips on how that might look:
The best time to let us know how we're doing is in the moment. If your steak is overcooked, your fish too fishy, the plate too cold or the drink too warm: send it back. If the entrée's over-seasoned, an expected ingredient missing, an unexpected ingredient included: send it back. If you simply don't like the item you thought you'd love: send it back. We are, trust me, happy to replace it. Cooks just want you to love their food. Why else cook? Try: "This isn't what I was expecting; could I please have something else?" Follow up with "thank you". And please, please, for the love of God -- when the server inquires after your experience be honest. "Everything's fine" means just that. We're not mystics.
If a server gives a bad performance, mention it to the manager or the hostess or even the valet on the way out the door. Every night is theater; we'll want to give a better show next time.
I'd also like to discuss the e-plaint. You got all the way home, and some aspect or other of your restaurant experience just didn't sit well. Before your fingers of fury hit the keyboard, consider: what are you hoping to achieve by shooting off an email? Seriously: Are you trying to prevent us from making future mistakes? Do you hope to be offered a complimentary replacement experience? Do you want someone reprimanded for dishonorable behavior? If any of those questions suits your aim, then it's best to set the sarcasm or snarky words aside. State the case and be proactive enough to offer a potential solution. Details help -- sadly, I've had lots of free meal requests over the years based the complaints of diners who have never stepped foot in my restaurants. I don't want to be suspicious, it's just that I've been burned a time or two.
Finally, I think there should be a rule. For every complaint committed to writing, the critic should have to write two complimentary letters, expressed just as eloquently and sent to alternate, deserving businesses. Don't be that guy -- be a good guy. A good human being.
We need to know when we hit the mark, too. It is, after all, what we're here for.
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